The Franklin County School District said Monday that an upcoming workshop on religion in public schools, slated for teachers’ professional development day Oct. 17, will go ahead, but not entirely as planned.
Superintendent Nina Marks told the board at its regular meeting that after the curriculum for the workshop was reviewed by attorneys working on behalf of the Panhandle Area Education Consortium, that the four-hour program would still be offered as an option for teachers to earn continuing education credits, but only after the end of the contracted day, beginning no earlier than 3:16 p.m.
“The district should allow the program to proceed as a non-mandatory / private event to the same extent and in the same manner as it would allow any other outside organization to speak with willing and like-minded employees on a volunteer basis,” wrote Scott Seagle, representing the Tallahassee law firm of Coppins Monroe Adkins & Dincman.
“Attendance must be voluntary and the district should neither encourage nor discourage participation,” he wrote.
The in-service training, approved by the school board late last summer, is offered by Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based non-profit Christian ministry that advocates for religious liberty throughout the nation’s public institutions.
The workshop, entitled “Religion in Public Schools: A Workshop Covering Teacher’s Rights, Student’s Rights, and Prayer in School,” was proposed to the board by the Prayer Awakening group, which is led by Eastpoint’s Joyce Estes.
She said the group’s membership includes pastors Scott Shiver, Themo Patriotis, and Ron Barks, as well as Dottye Thornburg, Larry Sterling, Byron Sherman, and Tom Hummel.
In a Sept. 15 letter to the community, Estes sought donations to help defray the more than $2,000 cost of the workshop. “We encourage you to ask your churches to help as well as any interested citizens,” she wrote. “This group of non dominations, designated as Prayer Awakening, have met and found it so important to educate our students and teachers their rights as Christians as well as unbelievers.”
In her report to the board Monday, School Board Attorney Barbara Sanders said she had asked PAEC to review the curriculum for the upcoming workshop.
Marks told the board “there’s no reason not to hold this meeting,” but asked that they uphold PAEC’s position that the workshop not coincide with teachers’’ contracted hours. In addition, she reiterated that participation would be optional, and that the district would enable those teachers who took part to earn continuing education credits.
Board Chair Pam Shiver indicated she differed with PAEC’s conclusion, and stressed the importance of following through on the board’s commitment to holding the workshop.
“This is an educational seminar for the purpose of not putting us into a potion of liability,” she said. “There are five cases I’m familiar with in the last four or five years. “
She said too many teachers “err on the side of caution and in turn violate a student’s religious rights.”
In its report, the PAEC attorney raised several questions about the content of the Liberty Counsel’s curriculum,
“While the proposed training materials include – for the most part – accurate descriptions of the law, they also evince an agenda-driven lack of objectivity that emphasizes free exercise freedoms while underemphasizing the establishment clause’s command for government neutrality,” he wrote. “Consistent with the Liberty Counsel’s purpose, the training appears aimed not at objective and impartial education, but rather as a ‘how to’ guide for the advancement of specifically Christian ideals and values in public schools.”
Shiver took issue with this perspective voiced by the PAEC attorney.
“Are they saying they feel like it’s slanted?” she asked. “I think it’s a very important module that needs to be taught.
“Is it optional if they (a teacher) violate a student’s rights?” she asked. “Then it’s not optimal for us, it puts us into a position of liability.”
In his comments on the subject to the board, Principal Chip Clatto opened by saying that “I think all of us agree we should always have religious tolerance across the board.”
He said Oct. 17 is one of a limited number of professional development days, and that “starting off we have a lot of ground to cover.
“They (Prayer Awakening) are asking for a four-hour block. Right now we cannot afford to give that,” he said. “If staff wants to stay after school, by all means they all are welcome to attend.
“The teachers need to be aware and brought up to speed on what can and cannot be said. This is the right thing to do as a district,” Clatto said. “As far as professional development, if it is dealing with curriculum, by all means they can get credit for it.”
The workshop is slated to be conducted by Melbourne attorney Scott Dixon. His bio notes that in addition to his church membership and active legal practice, he has “created and conducts educational workshops on Religion in Public Schools (instructing students, teachers and parents on their legal rights) and has served as an adjunct professor at Keiser University.”
In their letter, encouraging donations to offset the cost of the workshop, which they plan to cover, Prayer Awakening wrote that “we seem to live in a litigious society in America today. Some may wish to sue because they feel there is an illegal expression of religion in schools. Others may do so because they feel their legally protected expression of religion has been denied to them. It seems to be in the best interest of all to understand the law and to know what rights are available to individuals and what limitations are in place.”